Community health improvement is a strategic priority for many hospitals, health systems, public health agencies, foundations, and other organizations with a mission for community health. Experience shows that the work of community health improvement can become costly and complex if it is not guided by a clear strategic vision. At Community Health Solutions, we have supported dozens of community health initiatives over the past fifteen years, and we have learned a lot about what works (and what doesn’t) in community needs assessment and strategy development. Here are five strategic lessons for community health improvement.
1. Start with leadership support. Community health improvement requires collaboration, and collaboration requires leadership. Internal collaboration is needed to assure that the key people from your organization are aware and supportive of your community health strategy. External collaboration is needed to create community supports that make a real difference for individuals and populations. Leadership support is essential for making this type of collaboration happen. The evidence for this lesson can be found in successful initiatives as well as initiatives that failed for lack of leadership clarity.
2. Have a plan and structure for collaboration. In our experience, too many collaborations falter for lack of a plan and a structure for working together. As a planning process, we suggest engaging a five-phase process of scoping, alignment, design, development, and execution. Focusing on a structure for collaboration, form should follow function, but it is typically helpful to have a facilitator and a source of staff support to help guide and inform the process. You can always adjust your plan and structure as the project evolves; the main thing is to have a roadmap that everyone can follow.
3. Create a clear value proposition. Whatever process and structure you decide to use, it is imperative that everyone involved has a clear value proposition for participating in the project. It is a given that everyone wants the project to work for the good of the population being served. But it is easy to forget that every organization involved must also gain something valuable from the experience, whether it be mission achievement, social capital, resource acquisition, or something else. In our experience the importance of a clear value proposition cannot be overstated. The lack of a clear value proposition is probably the number one reason why collaborations fall short of expectations.
4. Build on existing assets and evidence. In our efforts to solve problems we often overlook the assets that could be leveraged within our own community. Develop an inventory of the people, programs, organizations, and other assets that could be tapped to help solve your chosen community challenge. Likewise, ‘go to the literature’ to learn what types of health improvement strategies might work (or not) within your community. Then think creatively about how to combine your community assets with evidence-based practice to produce a health improvement strategy that is likely to work. This will help you focus resources where they can do the most amount of good for the community, and avoid reinventing wheels.
5. Don’t over-invest in community dashboards. Community dashboards are in vogue, and they do have their place as a source of data and as a discussion starter for community health improvement. But remember, the real work of community health improvement takes place in focused projects that require local leadership, custom analytics and collaborative strategy development. Also, there are multiple sources of community data already available at no charge from the CDC, the County Health Rankings, and other sources. So be careful about spending too much time and money on community dashboards – you are likely to need those resources to support development of local health improvement strategies.
Contact Community Health Solutions to learn more about strategies for community health improvement, including community health needs assessment and community strategy development.